Such is the state of America’s movie theater industry that even the bleakest of superheroes is being counted on to brighten up the business.
Two months into the year, it is already clear that theatrical exhibition has a long way to go to recover to pre-pandemic levels. The domestic box office through March 3 has totaled about $761 million—less than half the average total for the years 2017-2020 by the same point, according to Box Office Mojo.
Theater operators are counting on “The Batman.” The eighth live-action film based on the DC Comics superhero hits theaters Friday, 10 years after “The Dark Knight Rises” marked the last major film in the franchise. The latest one will also be the first major theatrical exclusive from
Warner Bros. studio after last year’s entire slate was simultaneously released on its HBO Max streaming service.
Expectations are high. Executives for
all talked the movie up in their recent fourth-quarter calls, and “The Batman” is currently projected to top $100 million domestically on its opening weekend. Demand is brisk enough that AMC and Cinemark are planning to use the film to test a premium pricing model—charging a bit more for Batman tickets than for other pictures currently playing.
That would be the second-best opening since the onset of the pandemic after
blockbuster “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” But even if the latest Batman went on to match that movie’s first-month run of more than $668 million domestically, the industrywide box office would still be tracking well below the $2.4 billion for the same period in 2019. And that is by no means assured: “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is now the third-highest-grossing movie of all time domestically.
In other words, even a super performance from Batman won’t return the theater business to anything like normal. A strong slate of blockbuster movies planned for later in the year might not either. Summer and fall will include releases from major franchises such as Marvel and Jurassic Park plus long-awaited sequels to “Top Gun” and “Avatar.” But Wall Street is skeptical;
of Credit Suisse projects a domestic box office of $8.55 billion for this year—about three-quarters of the $11.4 billion annual average from 2015-2019. And consensus 2022 revenue estimates for Cinemark, AMC and IMAX are about 84% of 2019’s levels, according to FactSet.
It is possible that the pandemic has given the theatrical business a permanent haircut. Spider-Man showed that audiences will still turn out for megablockbusters from established franchises, but movies falling outside that category still face iffy prospects—especially since most major studios face the dual pressure of the reluctance of older filmgoers to return to theaters and the voracious appetite of their own streaming outlets to feed.
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The continued relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions could spark more moviegoers to return. After all, strong demand for cruises, theme parks and concerts show plenty of people willing to jump back into in-person entertainment. But those experiences have few alternatives; even streamed concerts in the so-called “metaverse” hardly equate to the real thing. In a report last week,
of Morgan Stanley projected that the domestic box office will remain in the low $9 billion range for the years 2023-25, adding that “moviegoing is the only ‘return to live’ sub industry in our coverage we do not expect to recover” above pre-pandemic levels over time.
Studios and movie chains that want to alter that trajectory will need more than superheroes to save the day.
Write to Dan Gallagher at email@example.com
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